Toward an Equitable Student Transportation System
Ensuring access to healthy, sustainable school travel in Canada
Published December 1st 2022
Why electric school buses?
In Canada, many children and youth live at a far enough distance from their school to require motorized vehicles to travel there. For these students, school buses are generally their best transportation option. Not only are they the safest vehicles for transporting children (1), they also help reduce congestion and pollution in school zones by lowering the number of vehicles.
Unfortunately, the majority of Canada’s school buses are diesel-powered, and diesel exhaust is known to harm human and environmental health. To make school transportation healthier and more sustainable, the Canadian Electric School Bus Alliance – led by Green Communities Canada and Équiterre – is working to transition all of Canada’s school buses from diesel to electric power by 2040. Compared to their diesel counterparts, electric school buses release minimal greenhouse gas emissions, and are better for children’s health.
Not just buses
Electric school buses are not the only way to achieve a transportation system that provides every student with access to healthy and sustainable school travel modes. Not to mention that merely transitioning to electric vehicles – and reinforcing a transportation system that’s centered around motorized vehicles – is inherently unsustainable in the long run.
Instead, active school travel, like walking and biking, provides near-daily opportunities for children and youth to reap the health benefits of physical activity while helping children develop autonomy, independence, and sense of place (2). In terms of sustainability, active travel produces negligible emissions and is undoubtedly the most environmentally-friendly mode of travel.
Decades ago, Green Communities Canada identified the need to prioritize support for pedestrians and cyclists on the school journey, and since then has been a leader in supporting active school travel, alongside its recent work on electric school buses.
In support of active school travel
To support active school travel, Green Communities Canada leads the Ontario Active School Travel program. The program works on-the-ground by facilitating School Travel Planning in Toronto, which helps schools address traffic safety concerns while encouraging active travel among students. Additionally, through Ontario Active School Travel, the organization creates and disseminates active travel resources nation-wide.
Throughout its work, the organization follows a model which incorporates measures from “The 5 E’s” – Education, Encouragement, Engineering, Enforcement (optional) and Evaluation – and has recently started to introduce Equity into its model. To be effective, active travel interventions should incorporate measures from across the E’s as they all work together to support active travel. For instance, implementing engineering measures such as protected bike lanes can help encourage active school travel behaviours by easing safety concerns around walking and biking.
Although most communities across Canada could benefit from improving their active travel infrastructure, low-income and marginalized communities generally need it most. There is evidence that they not only lack infrastructure such as traffic calming interventions like speed humps (3), but that children living in these communities are oftentimes more likely to walk or bike to school (4), in lieu of getting a ride in a motorized vehicle like a school bus or car. Thus, considerations of equity can help inform where to prioritize active travel infrastructure.
Although Green Communities Canada doesn’t deliver School Travel Planning programming outside of Toronto, it provides resources to support other facilitators across the country, most notably through the School Travel Planning Toolkit. Green Communities Canada has also worked to support active transportation skills training for kids, including an audit of existing programs across Canada and the development of a resource hub for communities trying to start their own program.
Schooltravel.ca is home to the Ideas Lab, which provides ideas and inspiration to help students form healthy active travel habits, like starting a walking buddies program for children who live on the same school route. Additionally, the Ontario Active School Travel program holds seasonal encouragement events to inspire and celebrate active travel year round.
Although many students currently require bus services to travel long distances to school, this doesn’t have to be the case. As demonstrated in this report from Green Communities Canada and HEAL, provincial policies around school siting decisions can be changed so that schools are built closer to the communities they serve. Other engineering measures that can be achieved through policy change include the creation of active school travel zones and the implementation of school streets.
When a school first enters the School Travel Planning program, the program facilitator collects different types of data to measure initial rates of active school travel at the school, as well as to evaluate the school’s traffic safety issues prior to considering engineering measures. Every year, follow-up surveys are conducted in classrooms and with families to evaluate progress of the School Travel Planning program.
Toward a more equitable transportation system
Although the health and climate benefits of electric school buses may seem limited to students who take the bus, they do play an important role in complementing active school travel journeys. For instance, by reducing noise pollution and improving air quality in the communities they serve, they support children who walk and roll alongside the bus more than their diesel predecessors could.
Even still, the implementation of electric school buses should be part of a holistic approach to student transportation that incorporates active school travel interventions and other measures to reduce the use of motorized vehicles altogether. Only through an inclusive, equitable approach to school transportation can we support the health and well-being of children and communities in Canada.
Alongside advocating for electric school buses, we encourage readers to champion active school travel in their communities. One of the best ways to do this is by advocating for local policy changes. For some inspiration, look through our report containing evidence-based policy recommendations to support active school travel.
(1) Transport Canada. (2020). About school bus safety in Canada.
(2) Morris, S. et al. (2022). Children’s experience of the journey between home and school: A qualitative synthesis using meta-ethnography.
(3) Schwartz, N. et al. (2022). Social inequalities in child pedestrian collisions: The role of the built environment.
(4) Brophy, S. et al. (2011). Parental factors associated with walking to school and participation in organised activities at age 5.